Telling the truth about our lives #Bach #Zagajewski

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

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Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by JS Bach—the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution.

At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of eleven hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah”.

bachAs we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics—we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. Continue reading

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A Christmas Prayer

My latest column in the Christian Courier is a prayer for Christmas.
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Praise to you, O living Word, for you give the gift of our world. You are the creating one through whom ancient Laurentian mountains have their craggy existence. By your imaginative power, forests of black spruce, larch, and balsam grow along ridges of granite and gneiss. By your gracious creativity, lynx and porcupine make their fleet-footed or lumbering way through habitats long called home. “All, at a Word, has become this almost overwhelming loveliness” (Margaret Avison).

Praise to you, O living Word, who has been born, like us, in a rush of blood and water—vulnerable, with your mother, in your passage into this world. The love displayed in your birth is an accompanying love that risks pain and loss and cold and homelessness, even as you are warmly received into the arms of Mary. This young woman who has borne God, leads you into a beautiful and fearful world, teaching you the prayers of your people along the way. You have learned from her; you are yourself with her and the people to whom she belongs. You find yourself, and are yourself, in relation to the God who makes covenant with this people.

Praise to you, O living Word, for you are the showing forth of God’s glory. In your speaking, the magnificence of God is heard. In your face, the beauty of God is seen. In your living, the grandeur of God is made apparent. We had always expected God’s glory to be otherworldly, almost unimaginable, yet here you are in time and space. God’s grandeur in a bawling baby. Glory to God in the highest; Glory to God in an unremarkable Lord alongside us. Continue reading

Rocks, boulders, pebbles, alive?

Stones of all kinds were a feature of my family’s vacation this past month – a vacation that included two weeks on the West Coast. We spent time in and around Vancouver, and then up the coast into Alaska. Everywhere there were stones.

With the tide out, wandering on rocky beaches – more stones than could be counted.

On a Sea-to-Sky hike and climb near Squamish – scrambling across rock falls and around boulders.

Along the coast and inland, too, mountains and massive outcroppings of rock – Mount Baker, The Chief, Grouse Mountain.

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Near Juneau, Alaska.

Rocks define our world, the earth, so why would they not define a summer holiday, also?

Sometimes those rocks and stones even appeared to be, somehow, alive. Continue reading

Fashioning our Self

My latest in the Christian Courier, here.

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A good number of Canadians are sporting new outfits these January days. We are wearing our Christmas gifts – or, perhaps more likely, we are newly-attired from our own post-Christmas bargain shopping. There are a good many of us who got into a new pair of jeans this morning, or put on a crisp new shirt. A cool new knitted hat to top it off?

At one level this exercise of putting on new clothes is innocent enough. It is, after all, a very common experience. But if we were to turn a critical eye toward this practice, our first thought might be that we have bowed to the god of consumerism. We simply do not need these new things, there was nothing wrong with the old, and our financial resources could have been more wisely spent.

This is an entirely reasonable critique of the compulsion to shop in our culture. But perhaps it is worth attending to another dimension of that experience of putting on a new outfit; of checking ourselves out in the mirror. Specifically, we should pay attention to the fact that putting on new clothing is a practice by which we establish our Self. The capital “S” is intended, since its our identity we are talking about. Continue reading

what we wear – who we are

Clothing has always been a significant part of human identity. Historically human clothing has been particularly significant in terms of our shared or our collective identities. In particular cultures there was always a similarity of dress; our clothing marked us out as belonging to a particular culture or community. So there has been a style of clothing typical among the Scottish, or typical among the Dutch, or typical among Cameroonians – and then even within those larger groups, there have been narrower styles that marked out smaller groups or peoples. If you were an anthropologist travelling around the world two hundred years ago, you would have inevitably identified particular cultures or peoples according to the clothing they wore. Particular peoples just were peoples that wore this type of clothing. Your clothes made you part of a group.

Today that collective dimension remains a part of human culture in some respects. But today there is also something much more individualistic about our clothing. Our culture in the west today gives especially high priority to our creation of an individual identity. In our culture, everything around us is seen as raw material from which we can create or build or project our personal identity. We have been taught to resist the idea that our identity is in any way given to us or dictated from outside of ourselves – modern culture teaches us above all that our individual identity must be created, must be fabricated, must be cobbled together by us out of the raw material of life. You create yourself. You establish your own identity.

So I choose this set of experiences to define me.

I alter my body in this way to mark myself as this distinct person. Continue reading

poem for palm sunday

PALM SUNDAY

     hymn

Time-pressed sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic rocks
Burst with anticipation that, human voices stayed,
Their moment of unlocked eloquence and
Soaring speech might finally arrive.

But vocal chords reverberate with ancient choruses,
Embodying praise for earth divinely imagined, given,
Gathering sentiments of quartz, kingfisher and crocodile:
Hosanna! King! Saviour!

     recoil

Impossible words, these,
An unlikely thing, this,
For ears untrained, minds unprepared,
Hearts hardened and unremitting in (un)generous doubt.

We would muzzle rocks,
And mock too-easy faith and hope,
Unless our own in human ingenuity unleashed,
In mean and method, device and digital tomorrow.

     walk

Whisper of fabric, cloaks lifted again across shoulders,
Palms tossed aside, withering echo of a song.
He silently surveys ancient bricked courtyards,
Seeking in crack and crevice, faithfulness and mercy.

Disappointment and departure,
Reculant in sad reversal of pomp and procession,
Bethany re-christened ‘disappointment,’
Thud of stone over Lazarus’ grave.

     persist

Resistance is ours only,
ultimacy not granted to our ‘no’,
flintlike, his face,
‘yes’. 

     three days

are you bored yet?

IMG_1362This piece was recently on exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as part of the exhibit “From Van Gogh to Kandinsky.” I was struck by how thoroughly modern and contemporary this image feels – it could have been painted yesterday, but was in fact created in 1910 by Ernest Ludwig Kirchner. The curator of the exhibit suggested that the figure is daydreaming, but the notion that comes to my mind in looking at this piece is the notion of boredom. Boredom is a word that comes into its own, with something approximating its present meaning, in the 1840’s. It is a thoroughly modern concept and reality. This painting got me thinking and reading about boredom.

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Does boredom express a deeply modern despondency about the lack of meaning in the universe? What is there left to do, after all, when the end result is and will be sheer emptiness and meaninglessness?

Is boredom an expression of the frenetic pace of our particularly modern lives, where we have lost the capacity to sit still for even a moment; in which we have lost the ability to live without distraction and entertainment and titillation?

Are you bored yet?

Would the figure in this painting be any less bored, or any less a representative of our boredom, if she had a smartphone in her hand? Or would that, perhaps, make her the perfect emblem of our boredom? Is our only answer to boredom, more boredom? Continue reading

Congregational Aesthetics – beyONd our walls (3/3)

In this short blog series I’ve been exploring this question: What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation. Otherwise put: What do the artwork and architecture and liturgical accoutrements of your congregation reveal about its faith and identity? And how do they shape your faith and discipleship?

In my first post I explored how we might respond to the artistic heritage passed down to us from earlier generations. In the second post I considered the importance of contemporary, artistic expressions of faith in our IMG_2868worship and community spaces. Now in this final post I want to push us out of the church building, into the wider community.

Too often the church has thought of itself in terms of a fairly strict separation from the world. The church has failed to identify with the world – it has failed to live for the world, in the world.

While we have to think about these issues carefully (theologically speaking), I’m of the view that we can and must conceive a much more porous boundary between church and world. This doesn’t mean watering down faith convictions, but it will require transforming mindsets and structures and programs – and in ways we may not yet be able to imagine. Such transformations must be defined precisely by our life for the world and in the world, since this is the only life that we can possibly embody in faithfulness to the one who is our life – Jesus Christ.

Continue reading

Losing Self? — Faith, Memory, Identity

We’ve all had that feeling of disorientation at some point.

Perhaps you are staying in a hotel somewhere, or visiting family for a few days. You wake up in the middle of the night and don’t know where you are. The room is unfamiliar. You feel lost. You look for points of familiarity to locate yourself. It takes a few moments to happen. Then, clarity! You remember where you are – are able to locate yourself in time and space – the unease passes quickly. You understand what has happened.

I recently had an experience that was both similar to this and different.

It was a weekday evening, and I had gone to bed at around 11:30 pm. – probably a little later than usual. Another variable was that my wife was staying up later than me, working on an assignment for one of her master’s degree courses. That, also, is out of our ordinary routine.

Effect1About an hour after going to bed, around 12:30 a.m., I woke up with a feeling that something was wrong. I had a good sense of where I was, and I registered that Becky was not in bed. But I also had a deep sense that someone was missing. It was late at night and someone who was supposed to be there wasn’t there. My sense was that it was dad who was missing.

As I sat up on the edge of the bed, I wasn’t picturing or thinking about my own father, who lives some 6 hours away. I was just thinking about some “dad” whose identity I didn’t really understand – I was very confused and at a loss, both as to who this missing person was and as to why he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Continue reading

Walking the labyrinth, away from the centre #spirituality #Christ

Last week I spent four days at the Crieff Hills Conference Centre, near Guelph, Ontario. I was there for the Guidance Conference of The Presbyterian Church in Canada – an event held as a part of the discernment process for ministry candidates in the denomination. It was, as always, a rich and meaningful time with women and men exploring their call to ministry, and with other counsellors and staff participating in that vital work.

During my time there, I discovered that Crieff HIlls has a rough and lovely (it matches the feel of the place) labyrinth, marked out with the ancient stones that are plentiful there. At the centre of the labyrinth is a large stone that symbolizes Christ, the Rock (1 Corinthians 10:4, perhaps?). The labyrinth is lovely and rugged and rustic and an open invitation to explore the spiritual life.

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This was my first experience walking a labyrinth, and in fact I did not have time to walk its full path. I was out catching a few moments of quiet before returning to yet another meeting when I happened upon it. Yet even the few small moments that I spent at the labyrinth were revealing for me.

As I walked the path I found the central rock persistent in my peripheral vision. As I curved around the centre, the rock remained there, steady and certain. Yet there were also moments when the labyrinth path turned me suddenly and momentarily away from the centre, and for just a short instance I would lose sight of that the large central rock. In fact, if I had continued further along the path there would have been some moments when it would have taken me, for a longer duration, directly away from the centre. Christ would have been out of sight.

I think of Jonah, spewed out onto the beach by the fish that carried him to Sheol for three days and three nights. I think of these moments in so many of our lives when anxiety or grief or doubt or simple worldliness keep Christ out of sight and out of mind. Sometimes they are the briefest of moments. Somethings they feel like, or are, very long seasons.

I was not walking the labyrinth in the midst of such a season in my own life – and yet I was struck by, and assured of the presence of Christ in those moments when my back is to him, whatever the reason and whatever the duration. The gift of such a spiritual discipline, perhaps, is the imprint it has made on my mind and soul. That brief walk in the labyrinth was an assurance of who I am in this moment (one embraced in Christ’s strong love) and I hope a memory imprinted for those future moments when assurance is lost and needed.

Walking the labyrinth. Perhaps I’ll make a habit of it.